Wal-Mart Sex Discrimination Case Heads to the Supreme Court

Will 500,000 employees be combined into a class-action suit? If so, what does it mean for future suits?

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Next spring, the Supreme Court will hear the biggest employment discrimination suit in the nation's history. The case, which pits retailer Wal-Mart against its female employees, will decide whether the pay discrimination claims made by these employees can be recognized in a class-action lawsuit. The corporate titan's lawyers have claimed, according to The New York Times, that these employees, who "worked in 3,400 different stores in 170 job classifications, cannot possibly have enough in common to make class-action treatment appropriate." Yet an earlier ruling by a San Fransisco appeals court has paved the way for 500,000 to perhaps as many as 1.5 million former and current employees to sue the court in a class-action lawsuit over "sex bias."

  • The Background to the Case: Betty Dukes  Lyle Denniston at the SCOTUS blog gives a comprehensive background about how the case began and its progress:
The sex discrimination class-action case against Wal-Mart was actually started more than nine years ago as a race bias case involving a single company employee--Betty Dukes, a black woman who is a 'greeter' at the company's store in Pittsburg, Calif. It later became a class-action lawsuit with six original plaintiffs, including Dukes, contending that the company has engaged in pay and promotion discrimination against women throughout the chain. (The case is Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, et al., 10-277.)
  • What Wal-Mart Is Hoping For: Delays  Fast Company's Kit Eaton writes that Wal-Mart may be looking to through up as many "delaying" road blocks as it possibly can throughout the case: "Walmart is no longer contesting guilt in these sex-discrimination cases (where hundreds of thousands of female employees were disadvantaged over many years) but is arguing a point of law about a class action case which would require it to make immediate decisions about reparations." In fact, even "if Walmart wins this appeal, which only legal eagles can make guesses about (although it doesn't look good), then it could still face thousands upon thousands of individual cases, which will take many years to play out."
  • What the Female Employees Are Hoping For  Although Daily Finance's Abigail Field notes that "until now, the women have been winning on the issue," the case could prove a long and costly experience for both sides:
If the women win this round in the Supreme Court, Walmart will likely be forced to negotiate a settlement with the largest group of plaintiffs ever, and--out of appeals--it will have relatively little bargaining power. Still, Walmart may chose to bet that it can win the actual case at trial in San Francisco District Court. Win or lose, if it fights, Walmart would make the trial long and costly, and appeal any verdict favoring the plaintiffs for as long as possible.
  • Other Corporations: Crossing Fingers For a Favorable Verdict For Wal-Mart  "Business groups and an array of companies are backing Wal-Mart in the case," writes The Wall Street Journal's Brent Kendall. "These groups include including Bank of America Corp., General Electric Co. and Microsoft Corp. They say the lower-court ruling threatens to expose companies to staggering liability by allowing unrelated discrimination claims to proceed as class actions."
  • What the Case May Bring: Tort Reform  The Daily Mail's Don Surber notes this possible consequence:
For years, conservatives have called for tort reform. Legislating tort reform is difficult because so many lawyers like it (including the defense attorneys for businesses) and really the courts do not like to be told what to do. The class-action lawsuit is the biggest paid. It always seem the lawyers get millions while the 'victims' get coupons for prices off on their next purchase from the maker of the defective product. Walmart may help end that abuse.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.